One of the beliefs that separate Protestants from Catholics is whether Mary lived her entire life as a virgin. All Christians accept the virgin birth of Christ. That is, Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit without any help from Joseph and they did not have sexual relations until she gave birth to her son. But perpetual virginity goes beyond the text of Scripture to insist that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity was widespread throughout the early church. The most famous church fathers such as Athanasius, Augustine, and John Chrysostom all held to Mary’s perpetual virginity. If there were a list of doctrines that were considered true according to “the universal consent of the Fathers,” the perpetual virginity of Mary would be one of them. But even then, this belief was not completely universal. The church father Tertullian believed that Jesus’ brothers were the children of Mary and Helvidius argued that Mary had other children besides Jesus against Jerome. The reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Henry Bullinger, and Thomas Cranmer all agreed with the majority of church fathers that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Even after the Reformation, theologian Francis Turretin and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, affirmed Mary’s perpetual virginity. But today, few Protestants believe it. So what changed from the time of the Reformation until now? The only answer I can think of is that the prevailing commitment to sola Scriptura, that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice, put tradition in its proper place.
Take, for example, 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” How could Mary have been a perpetual virgin in light of the Lord having brothers? Roman Catholics respond by saying that these “brothers” were actually the cousins of the Lord since Lot is called the brother of Abraham in Genesis 14:14 when he was technically his nephew. But this is because Old Testament Hebrew does not have a specific word for nephew or cousin. The Greek New Testament is a different matter entirely. The Greek word for brother is adelphos, the one used in every passage which talks about the brothers of the Lord, while the term for a relative who is not a member of the immediate family is sungenis. Both terms are used in Luke 21:16 and are distinguished from each other: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends.” If the authors of the New Testament wanted to describe the cousins of Christ, why did they use the term for brother instead of relatives? Matthew 13:55-56 uses the term adelphos in the context of Christ’s immediate family: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” In a debate between James White and Gerry Matatics on the perpetual virginity of Mary, White replied to Matatics’ argument that “brothers” actually means cousins by saying, “Gerry, your mother and brothers are outside” to get the point across that no one reading the gospels would come to the conclusion that these were the cousins of the Lord unless they had been previously taught a belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity.
But even if the Greek word for brother can mean cousin, that does not solve the problem of Psalm 69:8: “I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons.” The brothers of the Lord are here described as “my mother’s sons” meaning that Mary had other sons besides Jesus. Psalm 69 is a messianic psalm describing the sufferings of the Messiah. Psalm 69:4 is quoted in John 15:25 and applied to Jesus: “They hated me without a cause.” The same verse says, “What I did not steal must I now restore” pointing to Jesus being wrongfully accused and crucified between two thieves. Psalm 69:9, the verse immediately after eight, is quoted and applied to Jesus in John 2:17: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” That Jesus became “an alien to my mother’s sons” is fulfilled in the rejection of Jesus by his brothers (John 7:5).
Another verse that teaches against the perpetual virginity of Mary is Matthew 1:25: “But he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Roman Catholics argue that “until” does not imply that Mary would know Joseph after the birth of Jesus, only that he did not know her at least up until she gave birth without implying anything about what took place after the birth of Jesus. They use 2 Samuel 6:23 which says, “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” Does that mean Michal had children after she died? But this argument ignores the Greek text of Matthew 1:25. The word translated “until” in this verse is the phrase heōs hou. The word heōs means “until” and hou is a relative pronoun meaning “which” or “that.” When heōs hou is used rather than heōs alone, it “implies a discontinuation of the action of the main clause” according to Eric Svendsen. This has been documented in his book Who Is My Mother?. The Greek translation of 2 Samuel 6:23 does not use heōs hou, but heōs alone. When heōs hou is used it implies a reversal of what was happening up until that point whereas heōs alone does not guarantee such a reversal will take place. Consider, for example, other occurrences of heōs hou in Matthew such as 17:9: “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” and 18:34: “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.” This understanding of “until” in Matthew 1:25 fits Mary’s earlier desire to consummate the marriage with Joseph in verse 18: “Before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
For a married person to live in perpetual virginity is contrary to God’s design for marriage. If Mary was a perpetual virgin, then she was disobeying Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . . Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again.” The belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity arose because of the belief that sex is a necessary evil, even within marriage. William Webster explains: “In the early centuries of the Christian Church, monasticism and asceticism, and in particular virginity, were seen as a means of sanctification. Celibacy became viewed as a higher state of holiness than marriage and sexual intercourse within marriage was regarded as sinful and defiling” (The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, 77). But this attitude is contradicted by Scripture which everywhere promotes marriage and sex within it as a gift from God (1 Cor 7:2-5; 9:5; 1 Tim 4:1-4; Heb 13:4).
One of the sources that was used to support a belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James which contradicts the gospels’ account of the life of Christ. The allegorical interpretation of the gate of Ezekiel 44:1-2 as the womb of Mary shows how far the defenders of her perpetual virginity will go. The ark of the covenant was interpreted allegorically to refer to Mary who is the “new ark” and therefore the prohibition against touching the ark of the covenant was applied to Joseph.
John 19:27 is the most commonly used verse to defend the perpetual virginity of Mary since Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to John instead of his brothers. If Jesus had brothers, why would he not entrust her care to them instead of John? But this is a self-refuting argument since it would not only disprove that Jesus had brothers, but that he had any relatives or cousins. The obligation of providing for Mary would fall first to Jesus’ relatives before his friend John. The entrusting of Mary to John is an example of the fulfillment of Psalm 69:8. Jesus’ brothers abandoned him when he was on the cross and it was not until Jesus was raised from the dead that they believed in him. Before then, they denied that he was the Messiah and thought he was crazy. As Mark 3:21 says, “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.'” John 7:5 tells us that, “Not even his brothers believed in him” after they mocked his claim to be the Messiah. Why would Jesus entrust his mother to unbelievers over John his beloved disciple?
Luke 1:34 is often used to argue that Mary had made a vow of perpetual virginity when she says to Gabriel: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” or literally, “since I do not know a man.” But why would Mary pledge herself to be married to Joseph if she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity? Those who take vows of perpetual virginity do not get engaged to be married. Mary uses a present tense form of the verb “know,” not a future one. She does not discount the possibility of knowing a man in the future in saying that she does not have relations with one now. Matthew 1:18 implies that she was planning to consummate the marriage before the angel arrived. The belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity shows us how powerful the influence of human tradition can be. May God turn us from every human invention to the Word of God alone.